How Do You Make $191,000 From a $4 Painting? You Don’t

How a New Hampshire woman tried—and failed—to sell an N.C. Wyeth painting she bought at a thrift store.

N. C. Wyeth, Ramona Cover (1939). Image courtesy of Bonham's.

A woman who accidentally bought an N.C. Wyeth illustration at a thrift store for $4 in 2017 was over the moon when it sold for $191,000 at auction in September. Now, she has revealed that the buyer never paid and she had to go pick up the rejected painting from Bonhams.

Tracy Donahue and her husband Tom, both from New Hampshire, had already decided how they would spend some of the unexpected cash windfall—they would visit their son who lives in Germany. These grand plans have now been put on hold.

“We’re crushed,” she told the New York Times. “I’ve never gotten that close to, you know, hoping for something.”

The painted illustration, which was picked up by chance from a Savers thrift store in Manchester, N.H., had been left in a closet collecting dust until Donahue did some sleuthing on Facebook earlier this year. She made contact with an art conservator who was able to identify the work. Further research revealed it was one of four possible frontispiece designs for a 1939 edition of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona. Wyeth, who died in 1945, was a well-known American illustrator for periodicals and novels, and the artwork soon headed to auction with an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000.

At the sale of American Art at Bonhams Skinner, bidding opened at $150,000 and the buyer, who was from Australia, placed the first and only bid. Buyer’s premium brought the final price tag up to $191,000. A month later, when it became clear that the buyer wasn’t going to pay, Donahue experienced “the greatest disappointment ever.” Bonhams offered to sell the work privately, sending over a contract that would ensure the Donahues received no less than $132,750 if the auction house found a buyer.

Unsatisfied with the terms, the couple refused. They are not yet sure what to do next, and are even considering keeping the artwork in the family. “We didn’t have the money before, we don’t have it now,” they said.

“Bonhams Skinner has worked with the vendors to explore other options for offering the painting,” said Bonhams Skinner’s managing director Marie Keep. “The vendors have now decided to retain the work.”


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